N. Stuart Harris, MD, MFA, an expert in wilderness medicine, offers commonsense ideas for maintaining winter safety and staying warm during snowstorms.

Winter safety concerns abound this time of year and, if you slip and fall on ice, you may find yourself in the care of N. Stuart Harris, MD, MFA, at Massachusetts General Hospital.

As an Emergency Department physician, Dr. Harris sees patients who have sustained injuries from falls, winter illnesses and cold-related maladies. He is also chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine in the MGH Emergency Department.  His work in that field has taken him to base camps on Mount Everest where he has treated patients with injuries in extreme weather conditions.

One winter safety concern is hypothermia, which can happen even near your home if you are not careful when outside, says N. Stuart Harris, MD, MFA, of Mass General.

Whether you are atop a mountain or standing at the foot of your driveway, cold is cold and ice is ice, Dr. Harris says. “Very few people willingly put themselves in extreme weather conditions,” he adds, “but many people will find themselves in major winter storms over the next few months.”

Warning Signs of Hypothermia

One winter safety concern is hypothermia, which can happen even near your home if you are not careful when outside during times of severe cold. Hypothermia sets in when a person’s body temperature drops below 95 degrees. “That’s only four degrees below normal,” Dr. Harris explains.

Warning signs for hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, confusion and slurred speech. “Infants and the elderly, as well as anyone with circulation problems, are more vulnerable to hypothermia and frostbite. But prolonged exposure to severe cold will put anyone at risk,” Dr. Harris says. “My best advice is plain common sense: Don’t go out into a storm unless you are prepared. There isn’t bad weather, just poorly chosen gear.”

Digging out after a storm may be one of those times when choosing the right clothing is especially important. Keep winter safety in mind and take your time when digging out.

“Shoveling snow can bring a range of injuries and trauma, including life-changing hand injuries related to snow blowers,” Dr. Harris says.

Winter Safety and the Heart

To stay safe while shoveling snow, take frequent breaks, lift small amounts and wear layers.
To stay safe while shoveling snow, take frequent breaks, lift small amounts and wear layers.

The arduous work of shoveling snow, with the cardiovascular stress caused by lifting and throwing, also greatly heightens the risk of a heart attack.

“Heart attacks are a real concern because cold weather makes arteries contract, so the heart must work much harder. This increases your risk of having a heart attack,” Dr. Harris says. “A big part of the risk comes from just not being in shape. Someone who is physically fit may finish up the driveway with nothing more than sore muscles the next day, but someone who is typically sedentary and not used to such exertion should not underestimate the extra workload.”

Dr. Harris’s commonsense advice for winter safety while shoveling:

  • Don’t try to do the whole job at once even if you think that you are in good shape. Take breaks after 15 minutes of shoveling.
  • Lift smaller amounts of snow.
  • Dress in layers and wear a hat and gloves.
  • Stop if you feel any unusual fatigue or shortness of breath. Go to the emergency department if you have any new chest pain.

Thinking back on his wilderness experience, Dr. Harris offers another bit of commonsense advice about winter safety: Be prepared and careful, but get outside and have fun.

 

Norman Stuart (N.) Harris, Jr., MD

Massachusetts General Hospital
Chief, Division of Wilderness Medicine
N. Stuart Harris, MD, is an attending physician at the MGH Department of Emergency Medicine. He is chief of the Division of Wilderness Medicine and the Wilderness Medicine Fellowship Director. He is also an assistant professor of Surgery at HMS.